As arguably two of the most famous (and undeniably powerful) men in technology, whether you like them or not, what Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk think, matters. That's why, when they fundamentally disagree on something, it makes a lot of noise. Musk, the Space X and Tesla mastermind, and Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and CEO, are two very different people, of course, but when they disagree so vehemently over something as relevant and important as artificial intelligence, a lot of people are going to have a lot to say... So here's my two cents.
The argument boils down to a few basic points. Musk is pushing for a proactive regulation of AI, which he feels poses a genuinely fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation, whilst Zuckerberg feels Musk is little more than a scaremonger. Musk (who is honestly the closest thing we have to a real life Bond villain at this point), hit back at the Facebook founder's claims, however, using a tweet to deem Zuckerberg's knowledge on the matter, “limited.” Ouch.
The tweet was a thinly veiled response to Facebook live broadcast on Sunday (July 23) during which Zuckerberg was asked about Musk's dire warnings surrounding AI. To his credit, he didn't exactly call Musk out as 'man shouting at cloud' but he did suggest that Musk, and those who agree with him, are “irresponsibly” drumming up a lot of negativity. Zuckerberg said: “I think that people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios... I don't understand it. It's really negative, and, in some ways, I actually think it's pretty irresponsible.”
During the broadcast he also pointed out many of the ways in which AI can improve or even save human lives (self-driving cars, medical advancements, the usual spiel), and argued that technology itself is completely benevolent, and that it's up to inventors to innovate with caution. He added that detractors such as Musk are just slowing down progress. He explained: “People who are arguing for slowing down the process of building AI, I just find that really questionable. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. If you're arguing against AI, then you're arguing against cars that aren't going to have accidents and against being able to better diagnose people when they're sick.”
Of course, he would say that, because Facebook has invested heavily in AI in recent years. Musk, meanwhile, has been warning us for years about the risks posed by AI. Recently he went so far as to tell a group of governors that the technology needed to be regulated. His frankly terrifying warning to said governors explained that “once there is awareness, people will be extremely afraid, as they should be.” He added: “AI is a fundamental risk to the future of human civilisation in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not. They were harmful to a set of individuals in society, but they were not harmful to individuals as a whole.”
Who is right then? If the social media storm generated by the spat is anything to be believed, they both are. In part... How dull. The real question, however, should be whether this debate has genuinely opened up the dialogue about advanced AI, and if it's really such a good idea, or if it's just a lot of noise? Whilst we're used to seeing silly Twitter spats between musicians and reality TV stars, we expect a little more of our tech moguls. Both Musk and Zuckerberg are intelligent guys who should be focusing their energies into more productive avenues. The voracity of their disagreement, however, underlines what an important 'hot topic' issue AI is in 2017. Artificial intelligence will undoubtedly play a significant part in shaping our immediate future, but will it help or hamper it? I'm (as ever) in two minds. Musk's fears (fears he also shares with one Stephen Hawking as it so happens) are certainly warranted and Zuckerberg is, as ever, seemingly only in it for personal gain, but it can't be denied that AI has a lot to offer us.
Zuckerberg's claims that AI might prove to be completely benevolent, however, appear to have been undermined recently by news that an artificial intelligence system being developed at Facebook that had created its own language (because it found English too slow), was shut down as it prompted concerns they could lose control of AI completely! If an AI has the power to invent its own language and its creators are scared of losing grip on its reigns, surely that suggests at least somebody at Facebook has serious reservations about the technology. Maybe it will decide to create its very own human race because we're "too slow?" Either way, whoever falls on the right side of history here though, artificial intelligence is certainly not going anywhere soon.
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and musician from Kidderminster in the UK. For more of his thoughts on AI, feel free to check out the 2017 AI Trends piece he published earlier this year.